Archive for 'Emerald Cities'

Countdown to Emerald Cities

Putting together a major art exhibition is not a quick process, with the planning for most shows starting years in advance. But no matter how ahead we begin work, the final two months before an exhibition opens will always be crunch time.

Mythical wild goose (hamsa), approx. 1850-1925, Thailand, Brass, Gift from Doris Duke Charitable Foundation's Southeast Asian Art CollectionEmerald Cities does not debut until October 23, but its installation is complicated by the concurrent deinstallation of Lords of the Samuari (ending September 20). This is not atypical — we try and keep the turn around time (or “dark time”) between exhibitions as short as possible. Since these two exhibitions share many of the same behind-the-scenes staff, the result is a whole lot of people running around with brains and workspaces messily split between Japan and Southeast Asia.

So here are a few pics of this ongoing mayhem, as museum staff work to complete as much Emerald Cities prep as possible before jumping into packing up Lords of the Samurai.

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Emerald Blooper

Nightmare: you are looking at the final, too-late-to-change proofs of a book you are responsible for, and notice a glaring mistake.

On page 21 of our soon-to-be-released publication Emerald Cities, Arts of Siam and Burma, 1775-1950, there’s a photo of one of Thailand’s most important  temples. The only problem is, the photo is of the wrong building.

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Inscription Found


Shiho Sasaki holding a Siamese painting. She discovered a faint inscription, which extends between her hands in this photo.

The sorts of Siamese and Burmese artworks that will be shown in our Emerald Cities exhibition seldom have inscriptions or other documentary evidence associated with them. This makes research particularly challenging. When an inscription turns up, it’s exciting.

Our conservator of paintings Shiho Sasaki phoned me this morning to say she had found a previously unnoticed inscription on one of the Siamese paintings she is preparing for display.

The one-and-a-half-line inscription on the back of the painting is very faint and so far hasn’t been read. The few words that can be made out suggest that the inscription records donors’ names and their pious intentions.

Next steps are to ask our photographer to take detailed shots under optimal lighting conditions, and to ask the conservators to try infrared photography, which sometimes reveals what cannot be seen in ordinary light.

Thanks go to Shiho for her careful, sharp looking.

Rocking Bangkok

The full name of Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, is sometimes said to be the longest place name in the world. (Apparently there’s a competitor in Wales.)

A good way to hear the full name is to check out this video.

It’s a 1989 rock song by the Thai group Asanee-Wasan in which the full name of Bangkok is repeated several times. There’s great footage of Bangkok through the decades.
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“Phai Thai,” chai mai? (“ไผ่ไทย” ใช่ไหม?)

Transcribing one language into the writing system of another is notoriously hard. Getting Thai into the Roman alphabet is a bear.

I made up an unlikely phrase to show some of the problems. “Phai Thai,” chai mai? would mean something like “You said ‘Thai bamboo,’ right?” It might conceivably come up in a conversation in which one person didn’t quite hear the other, or couldn’t quite make out a foreigner’s pronunciation. (Also, unless the people were good friends in an informal setting, the speaker would add some sort of courtesy word at the end.)
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Phitsa, Kof, Khomphiotoe, and Other Thai Words You Already Know

OK, maybe the loan words for pizza, golf, and computer are too easy. (To get the last one, dividing the syllables may help: khom-phio-toe.)

Many of us these days know some other Thai words. Travelers may have mastered mai pen rai (“never mind,” “don’t worry about it”), always a handy phrase to have around.

Then there’s the Thai restaurant staple phat thai (which sometimes turns up on menus in nonstandard forms like pad thai, presumably out of fear that Americans will pronounce phat like “fat” rather than “pot.”)
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Burma or Myanmar?

Governments, news organizations, and others around the world have struggled with the question of whether to use the name Myanmar (pronounced “myan-mah”) to refer to the country traditionally known as Burma.
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Wearable Art

2008.77.A.J mannequin

A peek behind-the-scenes at Emerald Cities:  Chief Curator Forrest McGill and Textile Conservator Denise Migdail examine a partially completed costume mount. With the help of museum preparation staff, Denise has designed and built this diminutive torso and a set of elaborately cut rigid supports (only one is shown here) to show off an embroidered and sequined nineteenth-century Burmese court costume.

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Bird-men of Siam

Among the most intriguing figures in the upcoming (October 23, 2009–January 10, 2010) Emerald Cities show are these mythical bird-men.  These creatures inhabit an Eden-like forest of Buddhist legend. At the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok sculptures of bird-men and bird-women surround one of the major buildings.

These figures are made of wood, and it is remarkable that they have remained as well preserved as they have; still, each has suffered significant damage that has called for intensive repair work by the museum’s conservators. Similar wooden figures were used over several centuries in various sorts of ceremonies. In the late nineteenth century, under Rama V, such statues were placed high on poles and lamposts along the boulevards of the city.

In addition to these bird-men, the exhibition will also have a bird-woman on display. Another view of the image on left is used on the cover of the exhibition catalogue.

Left: Mythical bird-man, approx. 1775-1850. Central Thailand, wood with remnants of lacquer, gilding, and mirrored glass inlay. H. 125.7 x W. 29.8 cm. Gift from Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s Southeast Asian Art Collection, 2006.27.24.

Right: Mythical bird-man, approx. 1775-1850. Central Thailand, wood with remnants of lacquer, gilding, and mirrored glass inlay. H. 128.3 x W. 27.9 cm. Gift from Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s Southeast Asian Art Collection, 2006.27.23.

Finding Sweetness in Life

Now comes the difficult part.  Although we’re halfway through the samurai exhibition, still discussing whether to prefer the films of Gosha to Shinoda, autumn approaches with the treasures of Southeast Asia.  We’re trying desperately to finish bibliographies for Burma and Thailand, re-reading Orwell’s Burmese Days and getting disgusted with imperialism.  It’s enough to make me miss the over-long samurai epics I was reading earlier this year.

Even with the knowledge of the dazzling object list that is Emerald Cities (gold sculpture! gold furniture! gold gold!), putting together a collection of books for an exhibition is about more than sourcing pretty picture books.  And sometimes, while getting distracted, tangents offer the unexpected.
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